Cultivating Cultivation

John Mullan

  • The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century by John Brewer
    HarperCollins, 448 pp, £19.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 00 255537 9

Two descriptions of pleasure gardens, a novel feature in the cultural life of 18th-century Londoners:

Vauxhall it a composition of baubles, overcharged with paltry ornaments, ill conceived, and poorly executed; without any unity of design, or propriety of disposition. It is an unnatural assembly of objects, fantastically illuminated in broken masses; seemingly contrived to dazzle the eyes and divert the imagination of the vulgar – Here a wooden lion, there a stone statue; in one place, a range of things like coffee-house boxes, covered a-top; in another, a parcel of ale-house benches; in a third, a puppet-shew representation of a tin cascade; in a fourth, a gloomy cave of a circular form, like a sepulchral vault half lighted; in a fifth, a scanty slip of grass-plat, that would not afford pasture sufficient for an ass’s colt. The walks, which nature seems to have intended for solitude, shade and silence, are filled with crowds of noisy people, sucking up the nocturnal rheums of an aguish climate; and through these gay scenes, a few lamps glimmer like so many farthing candles.

Image to yourself ... a spacious garden, part laid out in delightful walks, bounded with high hedges and trees, and paved with gravel; part exhibiting a wonderful assemblage of the most picturesque and striking objects, pavilions, lodges, groves, grottoes, lawns, temples, and cascades; porticoes, colonades, and rotundos; adorned with pillars, statues, and painting: the whole illuminated with an infinite number of lamps, disposed in different figures of suns, stars and constellations; the place crowded with the gayest company, ranging through those blissful shades, or supping in different lodges on cold collations, enlivened with mirth, freedom, and good humour, and animated by an excellent band of music.

The odd thing about these reactions, and the difficulty for any social historian wanting to make them tell us something about the times, is that they come from the same source: Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771). The novel written in letters, puts alongside one another the reports of the splenetic but good-hearted hypochondriac Matthew Bramble, seeing wherever he looks in Georgian London the flotsam of ‘a tide of luxury’, and of his niece Lydia Melford, a frothy but virtuous ingénue who discovers, instead, ‘wealth and grandeur’ comparable only to ‘the Arabian Night’s Entertainment’.

By the time he wrote Humphrey Clinker, Smollett, always a Tory critic of commercial ‘progress’, was sick and disenchanted, living in self-exile in Italy. It is always supposed that Bramble’s disgust was also Smollett’s. Yet the form of the fiction says: ‘take your choice.’ Either, here is every absurdity of appetite posing as elegance; or, here are the delights and excitements of a fashionable metropolis. Pleasure gardens were real places, visited by Fanny Burney and James Boswell as well as by characters in novels. They were also places of the imagination, whether that imagination was appalled or enraptured. They were the inventions of a society of conspicuous consumption (‘luxury’ in the old parlance) and leisure, a society in which pleasure was publicly available and publicly pursued – pleasure heightened by being taken in public. And they were accessible to all who could pay the price of admission.

One of the leading characters in John Brewer’s The Pleasure of the Imagination was a visitor to pleasure gardens. Anna Margaretta Larpent was a moderately prosperous lady living in London in the late 18th century, married to the state official responsible for vetting plays before they reached the stage. For over fifty years she kept a journal detailing her pursuit of culture: her energetic reading (The Rights of Man before breakfast; an evangelical anthology from the Scriptures after), her visits to exhibitions (one morning a kangaroo from Botany Bay; that afternoon mechanical reproductions of oil paintings in Pall Mall), her theatre-going, her attendance at concerts and operas. The Huntington Library in California now houses the 17-volume chronicle of Larpent’s tireless quest for what she called ‘a refinement which can only be felt in the pure pleasure of intellectual pursuits’. Her journal contains, Brewer writes, ‘a carefully and repeatedly drawn representation of herself as a cultured person’. He uses it not only as a catalogue of the pleasures a genteel Georgian lady might respectably pursue, but also as an exemplum of a representative self-awareness. To make yourself cultured was a new imperative for the ‘middling’ classes. Larpent was accounting, to herself, for her cultivation. Her acquisition of tastes and accomplishments – her refinement – was, in her own eyes, a moral obligation.

Hence the significance of her visits to pleasure gardens. Even if she preferred the more sober and expensive Ranelagh to the hotter atmosphere of Vauxhall, this earnest Christian lady took in both resorts. Places that had once been only for those of easy virtue were, from the 1740s or 1750s, on the itinerary of respectable gentlemen and gentlewomen (which is why Matthew Bramble is complaining, and what allows Lydia her guiltless excitement). In a career whose contours provide another of Brewer’s telling case-studies, Jonathan Tyers, proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens, made it a place of music and art, as well as parade and flirtation. Those who paid their shilling might be serenaded not only by love songs and patriotic airs, but also by the music of Corelli, J.C. Bach and Handel. Tyers commissioned a statue of Handel in informal pose – a slipper falling from his foot, lyre in hand – as the Gardens’ centrepiece and presiding spirit (there is much about the Englishing of Handel in Brewer’s study). The Gardens’ pavilions and supper boxes were hung with contemporary English paintings, especially by Francis Hayman. In the 1740s, Hayman painted rococo illustrations of children’s games: by the 1760s, as the Gardens became even more respectable, he was providing large-scale illustrations of British victories in the Seven Years War.

Tyers was a new kind of entrepreneur of culture, a man who became rich selling ‘the pleasures of the imagination’. The first chapter of Brewer’s book describes how little, after 1688, the arts relied on royal patronage, and how much on commercial exploitation. George II mattered less than Tyres did. In one of many entertaining vignettes, Brewer describes the attempts to celebrate the ending of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1749 and the British monarchy’s ‘inability or unwillingness to use the arts effectively to create a special sense of kingship’. There was to be a grand firework display in Green Park, accompanied by Handel’s specially commissioned Music for the Royal Fireworks. Lacking the expertise to stage the spectacle, courtiers turned to Tyers, who lent his advice and staff on one condition: that he be allowed to hold a ‘rehearsal’ of Handel’s music in Vauxhall Gardens a few days before the official event. This performance duly took place, with twelve thousand people paying Tyers 2s.6d. each. At the royal show, no payment was required, and courtiers and gentlefolk were cordoned off from the hoi polloi. Tyers’s event was a triumph; the display in Green Park was a fiasco: the fireworks fizzled out, the Italian master of ceremonies was arrested for fighting with the Master of Ordnance, and one of the pavilions went up in flames.

Tyers sold culture to a growing public. Brewer dwells on the details of the Royal Fireworks because his capacious survey is devoted to the history of the arts as a commercial product. A generous acknowledgment to Paul Langford’s studies of the 18th century heads the bibliographical essay at the end of the book, and The Pleasures of the Imagination shares the emphases of Langford’s A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (1989). Politeness was to be the sign of gentility in a commercial society, and the means of achieving politeness were themselves increasingly commercial, as objects of taste in literature and the arts were marketed with growing sophistication. The consumer wanted to be treated politely. Among the nine works on the 18th century cited in the list of Brewer’s own publications at the front of the book, five feature the words ‘consumer’ or ‘consumption’, and The Pleasures of the Imagination is, above all, an enquiry into culture as it was consumed.

When he describes Vauxhall, Smollett’s Matthew Bramble laments ‘that eagerness in the pursuit of what is called pleasure, which now predominates through every rank and denomination of life’. Brewer would be on Lydia Melford’s side, drawn to the enthusiasm of consumers like Anna Larpent, and the ingenuity of the producers of their refined pleasures. His book charts the innovations of these providers of culture: not just writers and painters, but printers, booksellers, engravers, musicians, editors, actors, theatre managers and impresarios. All relied on the idea that pleasure could be elevating (‘pure pleasure’, as Larpent would have it) and its purchase improving. Tyers’s successes were testimony to the power of this idea, his own sense of respectability proclaimed, a little loudly and uneasily, in a portrait of his family by Hayman – a ‘conversation piece’ – reproduced here. Brewer does not comment on the depiction, but it lets us see what Tyers strived after. Among much rustling of silks, a daughter decorously pours tea, while his eldest son, Thomas, just returned from the Varsity, stands behind his father in full academic dress reading, one imagines, some Latin poem. And symbolically at least, the Tyers have a special guest in their bourgeois parlour, confirming their status. On the chimneypiece is a medallion portrait of Frederick, Prince of Wales, ground landlord of Vauxhall Gardens and a frequent visitor.

The sense of being a visitor was clearly fundamental to the pleasure of places like Vauxhall. ‘The diversions of the times are not ill suited to the genius of this incongruous monster, called the public,’ groans Matthew Bramble in his letter about pleasure gardens, and this ‘public’ was getting used to taking its pleasures and its improvement in public places: assembly rooms, picture galleries, libraries and museums, as well as pleasure gardens. It is appropriate that Brewer takes us on a tour of them, for the commerce of politeness made many, Londoners in particular, tourists of their own culture. ‘We have not been to half the public places that are now open, though I dare say you will think that we have been to all,’ writes the breathless heroine of Fanny Burney’s Evelina, a novel full of the new diversions and jaunts on offer in the capital, and itself a great hit with entertainment-seekers. Like Humphrey Clinker, it is a novel in letters, allowing the author to express this touristic excitement in the very form of the fiction. Goldsmith does the same thing in his Chinese Letters, having his Oriental narrator moved to ‘an extasy of admiration’ by a visit to Vauxhall. Like Smollett, he might have meant his depiction as ridicule and yet has left it as another testimony to the delights of novelty.

This would be grist to Brewer’s mill, for he emphasises not only the variety of ways in which ‘English Culture in the 18th Century’ was enjoyed, but also the sense of novelty that often attached to, and intensified, that enjoyment. The book keeps returning to the delight polite consumers take in these new opportunities to taste ‘the pleasures of the imagination’. Georgian England may now, in our culture’s memory, be associated with ‘order, stability and decorum’, but ‘contemporaries saw their culture as modern, not traditional, an indication that their society and way of life was changing. It was its dynamism, variety and exuberance – not its respectability or elegance – which intoxicated them.’

One of the book’s best qualities is its author’s share in this intoxication. When, in his Introduction, he characterises 18th-century London, he describes it as having the vibrancy of ‘late 19th-century New York or late 20th-century Los Angeles’. (The analogy is more telling when one knows that he was living in Los Angeles when this project was begun.) Yet, though his is a Whiggish narrative, his interest in the consumer’s self-image saves him from projecting onto the 18th century a graph of progress to modernity. Novelty also meant uncertainty, which made it all the more important to separate ‘pure pleasure’ from impure excitement. He includes those who inveighed against luxury, lamented the commercialisation of literature or shrank from the vulgarity of the newly ‘cultured’. But then Anna Larpent did all these from time to time. Such counter-feelings were likely precisely because the propertied classes found a new social identity in the exercise of taste, and had new objects of taste supplied by the market rather than selected by a few connoisseurs.

The narrative is Whiggish in that Brewer is interested in how a public invented diversions and learned values that are now our own. So, for example, consumers could enjoy modern British art, where once the European Old Masters had been the only measure of discernment. (The first public exhibition of contemporary British painting did not take place until 1760, but then the organisers could hardly cope with the crowds wishing to attend.) Brewer’s lengthy discussion of painting concentrates on the efforts of artists to escape the power of patrons by creating a public for their work and achieving a higher status for themselves. The interwoven stories of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s career and of the founding of the Royal Academy are designed to tell us of the new power of (some) painters, and the new availability of art. Often at his best when dealing with the questions of cash that too many historians of art and literature leave out, Brewer takes us through the account books of the Academy, to show us how its status as ‘a space of public edification’ was inextricable from its commercial success.

Even more important in Brewer’s story is the reproduction of pictures – ‘the new proliferation of images’ made possible by the market for prints. Thus was a public created of those who could appreciate the fine arts at one remove. ‘In a single room, cabinet or portfolio one could enjoy reproductions of pictures scattered throughout Europe.’ We hear the Whig politician Samuel Romilly remembering how the Soho parlour of his tradesman father was a little gallery, ‘elegantly adorned’ with ‘the beautiful prints of Vivares, Bartolozzi or Strange, from the pictures of Claude, Caracci, Raphael and Correggio’. Engravers arrived from all over Europe to make their living in London, which became the centre of the European print trade. Engravings shaped public taste, and the printsellers determined what was worth engraving. Edmund Burke referred to John Boydell, London’s most powerful printseller, as ‘an English Tradesman who patronises the art better than the grand Monarque of France’. He, as much as Reynolds, was an arbiter of the nation’s tastes. At a Royal Academy dinner, the Prince of Wales gratefully toasted this marketer of images ‘for the honour of the arts and in recompense of Mr Boydell’s zeal in their support’.

Boydell is perhaps best known for his Shakespeare Gallery, which opened in Pall Mall in 1789 to display paintings of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. He paid leading artists, including Reynolds, large fees for contributions, expecting to make the money back from reproductions of their paintings. His appeal to painters to join a scheme ‘where the national honour, the advancement of the Arts, and their own advantage are equally concerned’ neatly connects the three main elements in Brewer’s account: nationalism, culture, commerce. Implicit in his subtitle is his ambition to describe the making of English culture as a national possession. In this respect he supplements Linda Colley’s compelling account of the forming of political and imperial nationhood in Britons (1992), which had room for Hogarth but not for Shakespeare, who was made into one of the nation’s guardian spirits during the 18th century. Brewer shows how Englishness (rather, for the most part, than Britishness) comes increasingly often to sanction the tasteful appreciation of culture. As some of those odd features of pleasure gardens would indicate, the pleasures of consumers were built, sometimes surprisingly, on patriotic foundations. The virtue of Brewer’s book is not that his illustrations of this cultural nationalism – Hogarth’s assaults on Frenchified connoisseurship, Garrick’s apotheosis of Shakespeare, or Handel’s abandonment of Italian opera for English oratorios, transforming him ‘from the presiding composer of foreign music into a British national hero’ – are entirely new. It is rather that they are all put together in a survey whose generous span few academics would risk.

Prominence is, necessarily, given to a sub-narrative that, in outline, will be familiar to many: the making of English Literature. Others before have, like Brewer, figured Samuel Johnson as a hero of this story, his edition of Shakespeare rescuing the nation’s greatest writer from Neoclassical condescension, his Dictionary charting the English language in all its most literary qualities, his whole life of writing an endorsement of the commerce of print (‘only a blockhead would write, except for money’). Johnson represents the ‘professional author’, and is connected to all the stories Brewer wants to tell. He worked as a hack for Edmund Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine, the very embodiment of aspiring bourgeois culture. He became an essayist for periodicals, whose proliferation through the century is the most powerful single influence on the formation of a new reading public. He wrote for the market.

All Johnson’s grand projects, the Dictionary, the Shakespeare edition, the Live of the English Poets, were the schemes of booksellers, and Brewer is at his best on literature when he looks at how entrepreneurs produced a national literary heritage. The bookseller and self-made man Robert Dodsley, treated as a vulgar functionary by his authors, is, in Brewer’s eyes, a hero of literature. John Bell, cashing in on the end of perpetual copyright to produce elegant anthologies of poetry and drama, had more influence on the formation of a literary canon than any critic. The history of literature for Brewer is the history of printed matter, and of its availability. He has little to say about the creative achievements of writers, but his gathering together of the facts about printing, bookshops, prices, circulating and subscription libraries, and (very important) the workings and contradictions of copyright law is in salutary contrast to all those books about 18th-century literature that show no interest in how texts got into the hands of readers.

Johnson is famed as the advocate of readers, as well as the friend of booksellers. Where the leading literary figures of the early part of the century, like Pope and Swift, believed that good critical taste was the achievement of the few, Johnson was happy to resign himself to the verdicts of the ‘common reader’ – we might say ‘the public’ (and hear Matthew Bramble’s groan). This is surely another reason for Brewer’s liking of him. For The Pleasures of the Imagination tries to address itself to a common reader of today. Hence not only the gloss of its paper and the copiousness of its illustrations, but also the range of its coverage and its way with exemplary ‘lives’. This big book skilfully uses capsule biographies as portraits of the age. Some are of famous figures and condensed from the work of other scholars: Samuel Richardson, the apprentice boy who became first a successful printer, and then the country’s most famous living writer (his family duly painted by Hayman in the same year as the Tyers); Joshua Reynolds, the artist as gentleman (rather than ‘mechanic’), who turned portraiture into the genre of choice for those with taste; David Garrick, who became, ahead of any writer, Shakespeare’s best explainer – ‘the Poet’s High Priest’, as one critic put it.

Garrick was probably the most widely admired public figure of the age. This is partly because of his coming to be seen ‘as not so much the interpreter of Shakespeare as his living embodiment’. Brewer tells again the story of his masterminding of the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, which first made Stratford-on-Avon a site of secular pilgrimage. He was also regarded as a miracle of expressiveness, freeing the nation’s drama from histrionic rules and habits. In novels of the period as well as in letters and journals, Garrick’s acting is one of the indispensable experiences of the cultivated person. Boswell watches his Lear to test the powers of his own sensibility; Burney’s Evelina writes of him as one of London’s most extraordinary sights (‘such vivacity in his manner! such grace in his motions!’). He was portrayed in some four hundred and fifty different paintings and engravings; his own age was proud of him, its representative. As Brewer emphasises, he was also a brilliant self-publicist, distributing ‘prints of Me’ to friends and admirers and patronising the painter Zoffany, who produced pictures of him both in his leading roles and in refined domestic retirement – the actor as gentleman.

The story of the formation of English culture cannot be told without Shakespeare, and therefore Garrick. This book’s more intriguing lives, however, are those of less prominent makers of culture: the Devonian tradesman’s son Ozias Humphry, struggling for success as a metropolitan portraitist and miniaturist; the composer and musician John Marsh, somehow earning his living from the concert-goers of Salisbury, Canterbury and Chichester; Anna Seward, creating, in her writing as well as her social life, an enlightened literary community in Lichfield; Thomas Bewick, his achievements as an engraver inextricable from his identification with Newcastle, its self-improving clubs and assemblies and its commercial self-confidence. We have access to the telling details of their lives because all four left records for posterity (Seward’s consisting of carefully rewritten correspondence). Such self-accounting may preserve some aspects of Christian self-scrutiny: John Marsh’s understandably unpublished 37-volume ‘History of My Private Life’, like Anna Larpent’s journal, seems full of religious scruples. They were also ‘stories of struggles for refinement’, of the pursuit of culture.

The Pleasures of the Imagination is an admirable book, in particular because it reaches for a wide readership. It would not have been able to do so without its author’s depth of knowledge and intellectual curiosity. Yet this does make problems. The illustrations are copious, and yet too often used – heritage-style – as if they are self-evidently illustrative of the period, when their meanings (as in that Hayman portrait of the Tyers family) need to be extracted. More irritatingly, someone has decided to dispense with footnotes. Sometimes this merely makes interesting testimony untraceable (‘As one minor English poet put it ...’): more often, it ensures, ironically, that sources can only be discovered by the reader who has a university library to hand. In general, it leaves the unnecessary impression that we must take things on trust.